Suburban Boricua on the fringe of Diaspora

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By: Hector Luis Alamo

Puerto Rico is the motherland. Every Puerto Rican knows this and is taught it from an early age. But no one sits us down, points to the island on a map and says, “That’s home.” We just learn about the motherland by the way everyone talks about it, by the way people seem to glow for a few seconds whenever they say its name.

I must’ve been five or six when I learned that Puerto Rico was somewhere I’d never been before. Puerto Rico wasn’t in the park. It wasn’t on Division. In fact, it wasn’t somewhere we could drive to. The only people I knew who’d ever been there were relatives and neighbors who’d come to my grandparents’ house, with faces darker than usual, saying, “We just got back from Puerto Rico.”

“How was it?” my grandma would ask.

And they’d all say the same thing. “Beautiful.”

Still, for me, Puerto Rico was more imaginary than real, like the North Pole, or Valhalla. I imagined lush green hills, colorful birds, pristine waterfalls and sandy beaches. At times, I still do.

Living in the Diaspora, it was easy to feel like a disembodied spirit, a ghost haunting the streets of Chicago. I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.

But then something happened during the summer after second grade that would change my life forever. That’s when we moved to the suburbs.

suburb-MEDIUMMy mother would later tell me she did it to escape the city, to give my brother, sister and me a good shot at a better future. I viewed it as exile. We had to live in the suburbs, I thought, because we were too poor, too weak, to live in the fast-moving city. We moved to a village of 30,000 people, and we didn’t know any other Puerto Ricans.

In terms of authenticity, of being a true Boricua, living in the Diaspora is bad enough. You’ll meet more than a fair share of islanders who insist you don’t know a thing about being a real Puerto Rican. They were born in Ponce or Vega Baja, they’re happy to remind you. You were born in Chicago or NYC.

And speaking of NYC, you even get this kind of authenticity challenge from East Coast Boricuas, who like to rub it in a Chicagoan’s face that they’re from the mainland Mecca of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Maybe it really is that great being a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. Or maybe they feel the need to overcompensate for diasporic angst like the rest of us.

Moving to the suburbs increases that diasporic angst tenfold. You get shipped to the quiet hinterlands, where they never even heard of alcapurria or a coquí, and now you’re an expatriate of a diasporic community, a derivative of a derivative, a knockoff of Fucci.

When we moved to the suburbs, my puertorriqueñidad died.

It took me a good fifteen years to realize I was still Puerto Rican. Maybe I wasn’t island Puerto Rican, or even Humboldt Park Puerto Rican, but I was Puerto Rican nonetheless.

If Puerto Ricans are following their other Latina/o cousins out to the suburbs, as they probably are, then my experience may not be all that rare. In fact, it might already be the new norm in the Puerto Rican diasporic community. And maybe we don’t hear about it that much because the culture discourages proud suburban Boricuas.

I’m not proud to be a Puerto Rican from the suburbs, and not because it’s a bad thing. It’s just different. But I’ve long shed my illusions about being less Puerto Rican because I’m from Wheeling, Illinois.

I ask you — you members of the Diaspora — are you less Puerto Rican for not being from the island? Are you less Boricua for knowing your way around New York’s Uptown or Chicago’s Northwest Side more than San Juan?

Should I be banished from the Diaspora for living in the suburbs of Chicago?

Puerto Ricans especially crave authenticity due to the history of colonization and cultural assault in our beloved motherland. Because the Puerto Rican way of life is being threatened with extinction on the island, Puerto Ricans in the diasporic community feel the need to defend that piece of the island inside themselves from assimilation. So no matter where we are — either in NYC, Chicago or some suburb — a part of us is always on the island, fighting against the same forces fraying the edges of Puerto Rican culture there.

Suburban Boricuas are the new and next manifestation of the Puerto Rican diasporic experience. Not better, just new.
And even now, there are little Puerto Rican boys and girls growing up in a Chicago suburb, watching their parents’ faces light up whenever someone mentions Humboldt Park.

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